Why you should Stop using Fabric Softeners & Dryer Sheets

posted in clothing care 57

Let’s cut right to it, you shouldn’t use fabric softeners. They’re not only bad for your clothes (especially athletic wear which we’ll get into) but also not great for your health or the environment, it’s just not worth it!

Fabric softeners became popular in the mid-1900’s because the dyes, detergents, and dryers were harsh on clothes making them rough and scratchy. However with better technology, fabrics, and laundry products fabric softeners are no longer necessary, yet still very commonly used and most people don’t think twice about it.

How they work

Fabric softeners typically come in 2 different forms – a liquid used in the washing machine or a coated sheet used in the dryer. They are designed to prevent static, help with wrinkles, add a scent, and make the materials feel softer. They do this by covering the fabric in a thin, lubricating film. This coating prevents static by making the garments slippery to reduce friction and the softener adds a positive charge to neutralise the negative static charge. It also helps to separate the fibres making things like towels fluffier. Additionally they are typically scented and designed so the scent will remain in the fabric. Sounds nice, so…

Why are they bad for your clothes?

You might have noticed on some tags, especially with performance clothing, they specifically say NOT to use fabric softeners. This is because the waxy coating can interfere with moisture wicking and absorption properties – athletic fabrics are designed to wick moisture from the skin to the outside of the fabric where it can evaporate, but if you cover the fabric in a waxy coating it’s like plugging up a drinking straw and blocks the ability to move moisture. The coating also builds up over time making it harder for water and detergent to permeate the fabric so odours and stains are more difficult to get out and become sealed in.

I get questions about why workout clothes can still have a smell even after washing, and my first response is always to ask if the person uses fabric softeners/dryer sheets, which is almost always the problem.

Although the fabrics might feel extra soft and nice at first, this build-up of fatty film overtime makes fabrics less absorbent. This is especially a problem with towels which obviously need to absorb a lot of moisture, as well as bed linens and underwear/base-layers which absorb sweat for comfort.

Fabric softeners can also stain your clothes, liquid softeners can occasionally leave blueish or grey stain spots on garments and overtime the waxy build-up can also cause yellowing on whites.

Finally they can leave residue in your machines which isn’t good for the machines and also means you can get fabric softener residue on clothes even when you’re not using it in that load.

They’re also not particularly safe…

For you

Studies have found that liquid fabric softeners can actually make fabrics more flammable, which no one wants.

One of the biggest issues with fabric softener is that they contain fragrance and the ingredients of fragrance don’t have to be disclosed, so we don’t know what exactly is in the product and there’s the potential they can contain toxic ingredients. Although in some countries like Canada cleaning products actually don’t have to disclose all ingredients anyway so it’s not just the fragrance where there are transparency issues.

Also a major ingredient in a lot of fabric softeners is Quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs or “quats”) which are used to help combat static but can cause skin and respiratory irritation. Studies of medial professionals who used cleaning products with quats (they are also anti-bacterial) found an increase in asthma in those who were regularly exposed to them.

For the environment

QACs don’t easily biodegrade, especially in water, and can be toxic to aquatic organisms.This is obviously extra worrisome since as a laundry product they go directly into out water systems.

Fabric softeners can also contain petroleum or palm oil derived ingredients. They also might not be cruelty-free/vegan – an ingredient found in some fabric softeners is Dihydrogenated tallow dimethyl ammonium chloride which is derived from animal fat.

I also wonder if the coating and synthetic compounds in fabric softeners effects the biodegradability of clothing but haven’t been able to find any studies on it.

What are some alternatives?

Air-dry your clothes, it helps reduce static! I also really encourage air-drying because it not only saves a lot of energy (and $) but really increases the longevity of your clothes. There’s less rubbing and wear, colour fading and shrinkage from heat, plus dryers break down spandex/elastane faster causing your clothes to become misshapen, and they cause microscopic damage to the fabric – just look in the lint tray, those are all fibres that have been broken off or pulled from the fabric! Air-dryed clothes will definitely feel less soft than using a dryer or especially if you’re used to fabric softeners, but you can try just putting them in the dryer for few minutes to fluff them up if that’s a problem.

If you NEED to use a dryer, wool dryer balls can not only help soften your clothes but also cut down on drying time which saves energy. I’ve also heard of people adding essential oils to their dryer balls for some scent, but make sure you don’t use too much/stain your clothes, and use oils that are okay with heat. Additionally the dryer balls can also help with static.

Also don’t over-dry your clothes, the dryness is what causes static so taking clothes out when they’re just dry will really help reduce static.

Synthetic fabrics tend to be the ones with major static issues, keeping your natural and synthetic garments separate helps with static as fluffy natural fibres rubbing against the synthetics builds up the static charge. It’s also a great idea to wash your synthetics in a Guppyfriend Bag which not only keeps them from rubbing against your other clothes but also catches the plastic microfibres they release into the water.

Another option I hear a lot about is adding a quarter or half cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle as a fabric softener (although be sure not to use with bleach), again I’ve never found the need for my clothes to be softer but if you’ve tried this I’d be interested in how it works!

As with any changes it takes some time to adjust, but everyone I know who has stopped using fabric softeners said they were just doing it out of habit or thought you were “supposed to” and having stopped won’t ever go back.

Remove fabric softener from clothing

Can you remove fabric softener already in clothes?

I tried a few things on my secondhand leggings which were full of fabric softener:

  • First I washed them a couple times but this didn’t do much.
  • Then I tried soaking them in water and castille soap for a few hours and this definitely made an impact although I could still smell the fabric softener
  • The most recent thing I’ve tried is soaking them in some vinegar and water and this also seemed to have helped a bit, but the smell is still faintly there.
  • I’ve also been hanging them up on a drying rack to air-out as much as possible.

While I have gotten rid of most of the smell (and it doesn’t give me a headache anymore just wearing them) it’s difficult to say if I’m only removing the fragrance or the actual fabric softener coating. The leggings still have a slightly waxy feel to them but it’s hard to gauge if any progress has been made. Hopefully as I keep wearing and washing them I can get rid of more of the softener but I don’t know if they’ll ever be back to the way they were originally.

If you have any other tips or suggestions for removing fabric softener please leave them in the comments!


57 Responses

  1. Barb
    | Reply

    I never understood the need for fabric softener, aside from the migraine I get from the fragrance, and honestly, it is challenging for my lungs to breathe around. Thank you for this article, as if my health was not proof enough, which it never is for those I know, this article provides reasons WHY it is really bad for everyone.

  2. Ollie
    | Reply

    I agree that our use of fabric softeners is more a matter of habit and not necessity. I am very sensitive to fragrance and cannot stand many detergents or softeners. I never use softeners and my clothes are very comfortable. I would caution the use of vinegar as an alternative softener. While it can benefit your laundry, long-term use can break down the integrity of the rubber seals and hoses. This is especially a problem with front-loading washers. I’d say dryer balls are your best bet.

  3. Cheryl Kent
    | Reply

    I have urinary incontinence and use washable pads on my bed. They specifically state NO FABRIC SOFTENER. I’ve read the comments and understand why not to use. Is there a detergent that does not contain fabric softners? The pads cost major $ and need an answer quickly. Thank you!

  4. Mohsin Kabir
    | Reply

    I have discovered this to be useful. I have consistently utilized cleanser since I grew up that way. Be that as it may, no more, I will currently utilize 1/2 cup Vinegar and dryer balls. Much thanks to you for all the data. It has transformed me for eternity.

  5. Shetal
    | Reply

    Thank you for the article on fabric softener. I have stopped using it from today.

    I have a different question.. how do I remove fluff from my new socks. I washed it before wearing but the fluff is still there and messing my carpet and bed.

    Shetal from Johannesburg

  6. Cecille
    | Reply

    Has anyone mentioned the use of washing soda, borax, and laundry soap in hot water? That’s what I usually do on my work clothes to get out sweat and deodorant stains. Just mix it all up and soak it for awhile, works best on already washed clothes.

  7. Ann Guhman
    | Reply

    Another product that has a scent i am sensitive to are laundry detergents-especially Tide. They increased the scent several years ago. My eyes burn and water and my lips tingle and then feel numb and sometimes I feel dizzy if there is too much in a room-also Room “freshers”, many essential oils and natural products, and perfumes and colognes. Makes going to places where people dress up a challenge. So glad for these suggestions to offer people. We scent sensitive are treated as hypochondriacs when mentioning this to others at gatherings.

  8. Lana Murpy
    | Reply

    Must read! We need to know more about our everyday use products

  9. Jenna
    | Reply

    I just bought a pair of secondhand leggings, when I recieved them the faveic softener scent was unbearable, they felt abnormally soft like they were coated with wax. I couldn’t even have them in the house. I washed them 2x with no change. I then did a bit of research and apparently some fabric softeners are petroleum based so it’s like coating vaseline on your clothing. I got aggressive and soaked them in a bucket with hot water, dawn dish soap, a squirt of Castile soap, splash of vinegar and baking soda. My thinking was the combo of soaps and hot water will emulsify and remove the lipid/vaseline layer. After about 6 hours the water was murky brown, which just shows how much was clinging onto the fabric.
    I rinsed them well and washed them on hot, and it took out 90% of the scent. Dried them outside and they’re way more bearable. Give this a shot!

  10. sandra conrad
    | Reply

    What is the actual ingredient in fabric softener that causes build up and the “waxy” coating?

    • Verena Erin
      | Reply

      They all have slightly different ingredients but it’s usually a lipid or silicone based ingredient that is designed to coat the fabric.

  11. Sue Boettcher
    | Reply

    I had the misfortune of having someone clean my upstairs carpet with something containing fabric softener and this god-awful fragrance. The fragrance one away after a few days but I think the fabric softener got on everything and it’s in the dust in that room. I had the carpet re-cleaned to get the fabric softener out, but that didn’t help. I still go in that room and spend any amount of time and I feel like I’ve been poisoned. Headaches, nausea, etc. I’m going to have to pull up the carpeting and have everything repainted and I have thrown out or given away a lot of stuff. I discovered that baby wipes, Huggies simply clean, to help to wipe down hard surfaces. It’s just been a nightmare.

    • Melinda Wilcox
      | Reply

      this may be too late to help…but depending on where you live, a professional ozone treatment will probably help. I have had my cars done and it is quite helpful but the room must be thoroughly aired out afterwards. Those fabric softener scents are formulated to stick for a long duration. Awful!

  12. Neil Clarke
    | Reply

    Totally agree about fabric softeners the smell is terrible and it is like a chemical Covid it transfers ont o everything it touches people who have used it long term don’t seem to notice the awful smell. It should not be used in front loading machines especially on 40deg wash as it will stay in machine because of low water content and through time the washing machine drum will stink. Put an old bath towel in the machine turn on to hottest wash and put full packet of soda crystals in drawer this should cure the smell and also you will see all the old conditioner washed into the towel. You can use baking soda or white vinegar as clothes softener but vinegar will damage the rubber seals in your machine through time, also remember to leave the washing machine drawer and door open after use to ventilate drum.

  13. Debra
    | Reply

    I have found this to be very informative. I have always used fabric softener because I grew up that way. But no longer, I will now use 1/2 cup Vinegar and dryer balls. Thank you for all the information. It has changed me forever.

  14. Julia Mendieta
    | Reply

    I have fabric softener Downey strains on all of my towels white and light color clothes. How can I get that stain out?

  15. Jessica
    | Reply

    i use the vinegar and lemon to remove the spot of the cloth. Is this suitable for the cloth?

  16. Hundred Worries
    | Reply

    Is one method better than the other or do both fabric softener and dryer sheets damage the environment?

  17. Daniel C Banks III
    | Reply

    are mrs meyers fabric softener and 7th generation fabric softener a viable choice for use?

  18. Doug
    | Reply

    Is there any way of getting a class action lawsuit started against the chemical smells? It seems like since this is a health hazard due to causing nauseating conditions or worse, and those of us particularly impacted by this are bearing the undue burden of trying to reduce this crap, we should be able to sue the manufacturers of this poison. I have seen studies where they looked at the exhaust of the dryer vent and found many toxic chemicals. I can’t even sit in a restaurant or a rental vehicle without having this crap transfer to my clothing. It has even transferred to my wife’s car. So is there any way to permanently stop this insane practice? Hey? Calling all lawyers!

    • John
      | Reply

      I’ll join you in the lawsuit. We need to get rid of the toxic output and stench.

    • DJ
      | Reply

      Finally a group of people who understand just how sickening these products are. Hopefully we can all enact some change and help educate others to get rid of these putrid poison products and the scents that come with them

    • Debra
      | Reply

      Why is it neccessary to file a lawsuit? Isn’t there some other way to take care of this issue? There are too many lawsuits in the system already, we really don’t need to add any more.

    • vi
      | Reply

      Yes, we should do something to stop these caustic chemicals from being made.

  19. Dylan Peterson
    | Reply

    I like what you said about not using fabric softener so that your clothes can still wick moisture. My sister has been telling me about some new shirts that she wants to buy, and she wants to make sure that they stay in good shape. I’ll share this information with her so that she can look into her options for taking good care of them.

  20. Barbara
    | Reply

    I never use fabric softener ,or the sheets. I do use about 1/4th cup of vinegar in each load. Vinegar is a great fabric softener, it removes any leftover laundry detergent, and it’s good for the wash machine and the plumbing. I put the vinegar in fabric softener dispenser in the machine. I’m a firm believer of using vinegar for cleaning, and every week I pour some in all of the sinks and shower and tub drains. Vinegar helps to remove the waxy buildup in the drains from hair conditioners. I also hang still hang all of my laundry outside. When we have inclement weather I use my wooden dryer rack! I do have a dryer but I hardly use it! There’s so many benefits to air drying the laundry, & using vinegar…lol!

    • Gerard
      | Reply

      Can I ask if the vinegar leaves a smell on your clothes? I only ask as the smell of vinegar makes me heave but I am looking for an alternative to all the chemical cleaners and fabric softener and I would definitely be willing to try this,
      Thanks for your time

      • Margaret
        | Reply

        No oddly enough the vinegar doesn’t leave a smell. Give it a try!

      • Sue
        | Reply

        Vinegar doesn’t leave a smell but if you want you can always do another rinse.

  21. Oliver Finch
    | Reply

    To be honest, I always avoid using fabric softener as they can be really awful in summer weather and generally during humidity. They are made up sticky and oily substance which softened your clothes after hard washing. I will choose alternative home based items to softened my clothes.

  22. Yasmin
    | Reply

    I know this is old, but if you can answer I would be eternally grateful. I’ve moved in with my partner and In the past their mother has done their clothes for them (we are both relatively young). Fabric softeners and detergents not designed for sensitive skin often cause my eczema to flare up and become relatively problematic, and I believe his mother used these products in their washing in the past (clothes have a sent that sticks to them and doesn’t come out after being washed, and feel ‘silky’, and any time I spent time with him and wore his clothes I would flare up). The longer time I spent at his the worse my eczema got but it wasn’t until I washed my clothes with his that my eczema spread to my arms (I initially only borrowed pants). Has wear/washing over time helped get rid of the fabric softener? I want to know if I’m going to be stuck with the itch and awful lesions it causes on my body forever or if it’ll gradually leave ;;

    • Wendy Blommendahl
      | Reply

      The author addressed this question in the article. The last section is titled “Can you remove fabric softener already in clothes?” I suggest you read it!

  23. Eleanor Ackerman
    | Reply

    Loved the article and I agree totally with what you say. Yes fabric conditioner is HIDEOUS! The smell makes me almost retch. You can smell people from some distance as they approach you!

    As for the “Static” issue, we’ve never had that problem at all.

    We wash our clothes with an amazing washing powder called ACDO. It’s available from a few shops in the north of England but can also be got from; https://www.acdocodirect.co.uk/product-category/acdo/ It’s a powder with a small smell and doesn’t need much for a great wash. The clothing feels brand new again after using it. Even the labels look and feel new! What is also good is that this product alone does the job and nothing else needs be added.

    We have used this product for more than 7 years. We moved down south and brought 30 small boxes with us so haven’t yet tried the mail order. I hope they deliver to other countries………..

    • Matteo
      | Reply

      Aside from all the obvious facts already mentioned have you ever noticed sometimes one gets a dizzying affect from chemical odors? With the invent of some of these supposedly beneficial items the increase in senility and dementia is something we take for granted as in evitable with age. Is this garbage can continually upset body chemistry including the brain what is the possibility this garbage is the cause of permanent damage?

  24. bonnie hale
    | Reply

    I have found that using white vinegar in the wash really makes my towels nice and soft.

    • T
      | Reply

      I have to use a public laundromat to wash and dry my clothes, and every now and then some sweatpants will come out with what I now realize is a stupid fabric softener stain, and every now and then, all my clothes will come out with the terrible fabric softener smell and make me so itchy, but I don’t know what I can possibly do about it!

      Is there any way to add something to a public machine to undo the residue of fabric softener that other people have been dumping into it? I’m sitting here itching right now because I am sensitive to fabric softeners, and I’m not a big fan of this terrible stink in the first place lol. Even when the public clothes washing machine appears to be empty of somebody else’s fabric softener, apparently it’s in there anyway. Does anybody have any suggestions on how I can wash my clothes and not have to deal with the aftermath of other people’s fabric softener?

      • Melinda Wilcox
        | Reply

        I have had the exact same problem…my answer is probably not…fabric softener by nature builds up in machines. Can you look into some type of a small washing machine or work out a swap with someone who doesn’t use it? Very difficult problem to have.

  25. philippa gerry
    | Reply

    So glad to read the wise words about fabric softener. I’ve just bought a 99% cotton jacket from a charity shop. Arriving home, it’s possible to smell the fabric softener. It is soaking in boiling water plus bicarbonate of soda, in the back room with the door shut and the window open. After that it will be boiling water with white vinegar, which strips grease. After that possibly hydrogen peroxide and boiling water. Then we will see. It might just go back. I don’t want it to contaminate other fabrics or the inside of the washing machine.
    Normally I use: ecover, wash balls (organic), vinegar, soda, soda bicarb, for various processes, not all together. I try to respect the water tables and the environment – and myself. Thank you for your useful information. I would like to see all chemicals taken from wash products, also bleach.

  26. Alexandra
    | Reply

    Vinegar is a fantastic way to eliminate odors from clothes: sweat, smoke, bonfire, wet dog, etc. Vinegar kills the bacteria that causes the sweat odor and makes everything feel soft.

    I use vinegar in my washer instead of fabric softener. It gets rid of static cling, odors and sanitizes everything.

    Baking soda helps make whites whiter, but can’t be used with vinegar. It works better than bleach and doesn’t make things yellow like bleach does.

    • Maria D
      | Reply

      Does the vinegar smell remain though? I really hate that smell.

      • Denise
        | Reply

        No it does not. I use it regularly when I wash my towels.

    • Debra
      | Reply

      How much Baking Soda should you use?

  27. Natalie
    | Reply

    Hi Erin, I know this is an older feed but I wondered if you knew how to prevent static from clothes? I use a more natural based laundry detergent and I don’t use fabric softener, but my clothes are really quite static even when they’re air dried. Any ideas?

    • Verena Erin
      | Reply

      Hm that’s interesting, typically clothes don’t get static-y when air dried since it’s the rubbing together that causes the static. So I’m not really sure why that’s happening, but may some things you can try are:
      – Washing synthetics separately or in a separate laundry bag as they are often the cause of static, so reducing them rubbing against other clothes might help.
      – Using vinegar as a fabric softener – some people say it helps with static also. 🤷‍♀️

      Sorry I can’t be more helpful.

      • Jane Lingle
        | Reply

        Hi Verena Erin, aluminum foil balls work to remove static. Use 3-4 square feet per ball. Squeeze together tightly and remove any sharp edges that might get caught on clothing, they should be 2-3″ across.. 2-3 balls per load. These will last for months.!

    • Tina
      | Reply

      I find if I dry my clothes too long they get static. Try cutting down on the drying time.

    • PattyP
      | Reply

      Thanks for the informative info! I’ve always hated the feeling perfume of dryer sheets which gives me terrible sinus headaches. I used to live in the city, where if seemed that no matter where Iived, my next door neighbor’s dryer vent blew just outside my bedroom window. I gag when someone walks near me, imbued with overwhelming scent they can no longer detect.

      One note though – it’s safe to mix vinegar and bleach. You may be thinking of the fact that when ammonia and bleach are combined, they make nerve gas, which can cause serious health effects.

  28. Patricia
    | Reply

    Interested to read how fabric softener can clog sports wear and retain “sweaty smell”. I do know Perchlorethylene used in dry cleaning machines removes grease/fat, but whether sport wear can be drycleaned to remove fabric softener residue depends on the garment. Best to speak to your dry cleaner whether a once off clean to remove softener can be done but there is also the cost of cleaning to consider.

  29. Amanda
    | Reply

    Try soaking in bicarb soda overnight before washing to remove smells. I use it for all sweaty clothing – works wonders.
    By the way – love your work.

  30. Deborah
    | Reply

    Great post, Erin! When I buy things at a thrift or consignment shop, they always seem to have that fabric softener smell. A vinegar wash helps, like you’ve found, but I’ve been alternating that with oxygen bleach (hydrogen peroxide) in the load the next time around. As it works, it degrades to water and oxygen gas, and it seems to remove fragrances that the vinegar doesn’t. (It’s also good for things like towels that need to be sanitized occasionally.) Like you, I’m unsure if it’s removing all the waxy gunk in one shot, but over time it seems to get fabrics back to their untreated texture.

    When things do need to go in the dryer, I have wool dryer balls, a couple of the bumpy silicone dryer balls, and a pair of reuseable antistatic dryer sheets I found at Earth’s General Store years ago. Even in the coldest part of our Edmonton winters when static is worst, everything except polyester fleeces comes out static-free with that combination.

    • Verena Erin
      | Reply

      Thanks for sharing those tips Deb!

  31. Rose
    | Reply

    Recently, I’ve started to use Castile Soap(DESERT ESSENCE Thoroughly Clean Face Wash 32 Fluid Ounces) to wash dishes as well as my hands. In addition, I used it as a detergent. It provided gently soft finish to my clothes with a natural scent! I realized I can do without fabric softeners and wanted to share my experience with you. 🙂

    • Verena Erin
      | Reply

      Thanks for sharing Rose! That’s great it worked well for you!

      I’ve tried using Dr. Bronner’s castille soap in the laundry and personally didn’t like it as much as detergent, but I use it to wash clothes when travelling which is great cause you can just bring one multi-purpose soap 🙂

      • Emma
        | Reply

        Great article! Totally guilty of ignoring the label and now I’m mourning over my possibly ruined gym clothes.

        I’ve got summer gym shorts in my drawer that will be sitting there until next summer. Would you recommend re-washing them in my upcoming gym washing machine cycles to try to remove any fabric softener? If so, how many times?


  32. Jailyn
    | Reply

    We have hard water and clothes come out very stiff, so I use a mineral-based water softener in the wash. As far as I know it’s environmentally safe, but have you read anything concerning about it? I also like that it comes packaged in cardboard that doesn’t have a coating.

    • Verena Erin
      | Reply

      I don’t know much about it, it shouldn’t have any affect on clothes but I’m not sure about a larger environmental impact.

      • Linda M. Lambert
        | Reply

        I am allergic to dryer sheets and the Liquid have been for years! Quit them first knowledge of what they made me feel! headaches..sneezing …hard to breathe it’s been years since I have used any. Occasionally I use vinegar! Much better now that I have quit dryer Softeners..At 72 years old now I can breathe much better without them. When I first quit I started cutting them in quarter slices and when that box was gone no more save $$$ and your health use vinegar or 1/2 vinegar and water.

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